The Higher Power of Lucky and the S word

Everyone in the book world seems to be weighing in on the fervor caused by the S-word in the newly crowned Newbery book: The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron. I imagine most of my compatriots in literature will come down on the anti-censorship side. As usual, I’m rebelliously prude. There are some words I just don’t want to read, and the S-word–I won’t write it for fear of having my blog blocked by filters everywhere, but it is part of the male anatomy–is one of those words.

Don’t tell me that people say it in real life. I’m perfectly aware that people say much worse. And I don’t appreciate hearing those words either. I mean sure, there is a time and a place to say just about any word, and usually that time and place is when I’m not around. As I said, I’m rebelliously prude.

I stayed up late last night (when I should have been working on putting together a class outline for an upcoming conference) to finish John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. I really liked the book. It had unique, interesting characters; humor; and all sorts of symbolism and meaning that will keep English teachers busy for years. I especially like the moral of the story: the stories we tell have meaning and change the world. What writer doesn’t like that message?

But the thing I didn’t like about the book was the profanity, like, every other sentence of dialogue. (And don’t tell me, Green supporters, that changing the CK to G in the F-word makes it any different. It still sounds the same in your mind and you know exactly what the characters meant.)

After having such a succession of swear words run through my mind, I’m always afraid that some of them didn’t leave, and they will pop out of my mouth at unexpected moments, like when I’m talking to my daughter’s preschool teacher.

Also, how can I recommend that book to the many teenagers I know? Their mothers would hurt me.

So anyway, the whole point of this blog is this: If you’re another author out there writing for kids and you have the choice to put in a shocking word or leave it out; please, for the sake of those of us with tender ears, just leave the word out. Nobody will miss it. Not once has anyone read a book and said, “Hey, I really liked that novel except that there wasn’t enough swear words, plus there was a shocking lack of references to the male anatomy.”


  1. Evenly
    February 19, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    I disagree.

    With novels like yours (which I adore, by the way, esp. It’s A Mall World) it’s no problem to “clean up” teen language, because G-rated dialogue is at least plausible–if not always the rule–among teenage girls. But when you write a novel like An Abundance of Katherines (more of a literary bent, and with a male voice) the intended audience can be pretty critical. And, much as you might wish them to, teenage boys DO NOT talk like Mouseketeers. My point, I suppose, is that what constitutes thoughtful editing in one branch of YA sometimes amounts to condescension in another.

    As for the offense you’ve taken to the S-word, well, everyone has words they’d rather not read. I, for one, dislike the word “salmagundi.” There are better words out there with identical meanings, words that sound less like “Solomon Grundy.” But, realizing my objection does not mean the word is objectionABLE, I suppose I will allow books containing MY S-word to remain on the shelves without further…objection. Of course, MY S-word does not describe a portion of anatomy possessed by half the population, so I guess I’m just being silly. And I do see your point about anatomical words. I move that, henceforth, legs be referred to only as “limbs,” and I vote we all boycott Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs. Clearly, that book is trash.

  2. Janette Rallison
    February 20, 2007 at 8:36 am

    Well, yes, I knew many people would disagree with me. We, the rebelliously prude, are a small group. Mostly because no one wants to come to our club parties . . .

  3. Julie Wright
    February 20, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    I personally think a book could be done without condescension and still keep a g rating or at least a pg rating. I’ve read several books dealing with unwed pregnancy, child abuse, drug abuse etc and they’ve done it all without swear words, or gratuitous scenes.

    I think if a writer really wants to make a novel work without those things, then they can and by so doing become stronger writers since they took the harder route. If they don’t want to make it work without those things, they can always safely dwell in the refuge of “Well, now it is realistic.” (as though the others are somehow less real . . . fiction folks! It’s all a facade!)

    Sure kids say bad things . . . so do adults–tragically. But good writing isn’t to mirror exact dialogue in humanity; good writing is trimming and molding that dialogue into something that feels real and that carries the story. Teens do a lot of um-ming and er-ring as well, but it would be a sad author indeed who tried to replicate THAT in print . . .

  4. Tristi Pinkston
    February 21, 2007 at 1:03 am

    Most of the time, when we read a book that references genitals, it’s unneccessary to the story. If you mention legs (oh, sorry, limbs) it’s usually because they need to be mentioned. I’ve rarely read a book where the author really needed to mention genitals in order to further their plot. And if the plot were to be genital driven, wow, that’s an odd book, that’s for sure.

    My point is that there’s more to life than body parts and I am frustrated with all these so-called literary writers who seem to think that the only way to tell a story is to pepper it with anatomy, as if a mention of anatomy makes it real literature.

  5. Anonymous
    February 21, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    I can see both sides, but the majority of the time I see profanity in movies and literature, it’s NOT realistic.

    In one film, F-bombs were going off left and right. That matched the personalities of about three characters. But then the 65-year-old white male, very much conservative retiree started using it.

    Excuse me? It was so out of place and out of character that all I could see at that point was the writer behind the screenplay throwing in profanity for the sake of profanity.

    So yes, I can understand the concept of wanting to keep it “real.” But in my real world, I don’t hear profanity like it’s used in books.

    And as far as YA goes, I’d like to hope that literature our teens are reading isn’t just out there to mirror society. There’s a reason I monitor our family’s internet usage, TV viewing, movies, etc. I certainly don’t want my preteen son reading books aimed at youth with lots of profanity and suggestive themes, whether it’s realistic or not.


  6. Evenly
    February 21, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    Okay, I haven’t been reading your blog very long, but I’m a little surprised that all your commenters sound so much like…well..moms. I kind of assumed your blog audience would be similar to your book audience. I’m definitely in the wrong demographic to be hanging around here. I think I’ll take myself back over to MegCabotLand.

  7. Janette Rallison
    February 21, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    It’s just an issue moms feel strongly about. Just wait until I do a blog on the pros and cons (what cons?) on whether parents should be allowed to arrange their kids’ marriages. I’m already picking people out for my children. Note to DD #1, Prince Harry is off of the short list.

  8. Janette Rallison
    February 22, 2007 at 7:38 am

    Okay, so this is the problem with writing blogs. I wrote last night that Prince Harry was off my daughter’s short list (Meaning the short list of men that are allowed to marry her) because he, after all, is the one who graced the tabloids because of all his partying. (Prince William is still a contender for the short list.) However, the first thing I see when I turn on the computer this morning is that Prince Harry is off to Iraq, so now my comment looks like I’m predicting his death or something–which I am totally not doing.

    Long Live Harry! (Even though you are still off the short list.)

  9. Anonymous
    February 22, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    Jannette, I agree with you, I never feel gypped because one of the books I’ve read doesn’t have swear words and male anatomy references in it. I find swearing rather pointless and appreciate that you write books that are actually clean without becoming deadly boring. Just for evenly said’s information, I’m just a kid, not an overprotective mom. P.S. Janette, if prince Harry dies, I’m so blaming you for it.

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